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Quadraphonics

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QUADRAPHONICS

 

this-is-quad

 

 

Remember Quadraphonic? Not many do, it seems. It was the first attempt at surround-sound, from the vinyl LP no less. David Price,  Hi-Fi World’s very own ‘quadfather’, investigates…


 

Ah, quadraphonic! The very name conjures up the worst of nineteen seventies excess. At a time when technology barely enabled decent two-channel stereo, a number of hardware and software manufacturers came together to bring us four channel hi-fi surround sound, whether we wanted it or not.


Unfortunately for them, the latter was true. Maybe it was the music buying public’s eager adoption of stereo, which by the early seventies was catching on apace, that made the audio and music industries alike believe that if two speakers were better than one, then four were better than two and quad would sell.


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Unlike today’s digital surround sound, quad was all about music; there were no pictures. The very first domestic quadraphonic recordings weren’t vinyl-based at all, but open reel - which was seen by many as the only serious music carrier around. With this in mind, a handful of music companies, such as Vanguard, released 4-channel pre-recorded reel-to-reel tapes as early as 1969. Fully discrete quadraphonic (using completely separate channels right along the replay chain) wasn’t a practical domestic proposition however, as few could afford expensive reel-to-reel tape decks and buy their music on 10.5 inch spools of magnetic tape, so vinyl stepped in to fill the void.


When Peter Scheiber presented a paper to the Audio Engineering Society on how to make two channel recordings matrix to four channel quadraphonic, LP-based quad finally became a reality. CBS Records duly snapped up the rights and spent a couple of years developing the hardware. Then in 1972, SQ (Surround Quadraphonic) was finally launched to a bewildered public. Naturally CBS wanted every other label to pay royalties, which went down like a lead balloon, so arch rival RCA (part owner of JVC) came up with an altogether more elaborate, non-matrixed system called CD-4 (Compatible-Discrete four channel). This required special records with a much steeper "cut" angle than conventional LPs, to enable a high frequency "carrier" signal. Although an altogether superior system in theory, offering proper ‘discrete’ surround from vinyl, it became troublesome in practice.


The smaller labels had a choice of either paying royalties to RCA or CBS, or developing yet another system, which they duly did! Just as CBS was making SQ a commercial reality, so Sansui was developing its own matrix system. A smallish Japanese hi-fi specialist with no record manufacturing arm, it proved an ideal partner for other record companies outside the ambit of CBS and RCA. Thus was born QS. In 1972, two Japanese audio industry bodies tried to make sense of the situation, and designated QS as the RM (Regular Matrix) system.


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The result of three new systems rolling out in the space of a year was, as you’d expect, sheer confusion. The essential similarities between SQ and QS, and their complete incompatibility with CD-4, were hard to explain to music buyers who’d only just started routinely buying stereo LPs! The fact that SQ and QS matrix decoders could not demodulate CD-4 records to give discrete four-channel surround, yet could ‘synthesise’ surround sound in much the same way as Dolby Pro Logic II does today, was even harder to explain.

As for CD-4 – suffice to say that the hi-fi magazines of the day had an uphill struggle in explaining it to a perplexed public.


Despite this, the industry made a concerted collective push on both hardware and software. Hundreds of titles appeared, ranging from Hot Butter, Barry Manilow, Cat Stevens, The Temptations and Frank Zappa on CD4, to Billy Joel, John Lennon, Pink Floyd, Santana, Paul Simon, Sly and the Family Stone, Steely Dan on SQ.

 

Even 45RPM singles got quad releases, the very first 7" SQ release being Art Garfunkel’s Mary Was an Only Child on CBS.


Despite their endeavours, in the classic mould of a hi-fi format war, no sooner had the legal wrangles been resolved, the products developed and debugged, advertising money spent and the magazines invested countless column inches on explaining it all, then the whole quadraphonic shebang fell flat on its feet!

 

Although ‘quad’ can be viewed as an object lesson in how not to develop a new format and present it to the public, it wasn’t a complete waste of time. It’s a matter of historical record that the format(s) flopped, but there were still several redeeming factors. First, they did actually sound quite good. Matrix quadraphonic synthesised from stereo could actually be highly impressive, despite the relatively poor separation of early decoders. CD-4, in theory a fully discrete system, was capable of excellent results – although of course it couldn’t always achieve them in practice.


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CD-4 also brought vinyl some valuable spin-offs. For example, JVC developed its own special virgin vinyl formulation with super low noise and wear characteristics, which went on to be used in many Japanese-pressed stereo LPs – and even Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs’ first Original Master Recording series. (Play a standard US pressing of, say, Steely Dan’s Aja against a Japanese version and you can hear the difference – the latter being dramatically smoother, sweeter and quieter sounding.)

 

CD-4 also catalysed advances in pick-up cartridge technology - with the carrier running at 28kHz, it was necessary to develop a stylus profile that went deep into the record groove yet didn’t wear out the delicately embedded back channel information . The resulting Japanese-developed Shibata stylus both contacted a larger surface area of the record and lessened groove downforces, sparking a wave of extended groove contact cartridges, such as Pickering’s ‘Stereohedron’, Stanton’s ’Quadrahedral’, Bang & Olufsen’s ‘Multi-Radial’ and Shure’s ‘Hyperbolic’. The benefits of this stylus tip transformed the next generation of cartridges.


quadradisc


Finally, much of the research work that went into matrix surround sound made today’s digital surround possible. It laid the blueprint for what is now proving to be the biggest revolution in recorded music since the introduction of digital audio – digital surround. Although it has taken a circuitous route via ‘home cinema’ and movie sound, multichannel music is fast becoming the new standard. To play the wealth of two channel music – the vast majority of most peoples’ music collections – matrix decoding is appearing again, albeit in digital format. Dolby Pro-Logic II uses a steering logic, just like the SQ and QS systems before it. In truth, it’s not far away from quad systems, inasmuch as it has full range front left and front right plus rear left and rear right. The only real difference between 4.0 and 5.1 are the centre and subwoofer channels - the former can easily be derived from summing the front left and right, and the bass channel isn’t needed with full range loudspeakers anyway – it’s more of a home cinema thing. In truth, the two systems work surprisingly similarly.


By 1975 it was all over for quadraphonic. Although RCA had poured millions of dollars into CD-4, JVC had single-handedly transformed vinyl pressing technology and the world had gained an important new stylus profile, the public simply didn’t want to know. A raft of new ‘bolt on’ quad formats arrived on the scene to confuse things still more (i.e. Denon’s UD-4, Stereo-4 and Dynaquad). Quadraphonic preamps, decoders and receivers got ever better – the 1976 model year designs were dramatically more musical than those of 1973 – but it was all too late. The equipment hung around in manufacturers catalogues until as late as 1977, where Sony – for example – was still proudly displaying its high end SQ decoder, but the end was nigh for quadraphonic and by 1979 the whole gloriously ill-conceived project had simply disappeared from the face of the earth.



 

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